Here’s a question for you: let’s say you are at school and have a test coming up. You study for a few hours, you do everything you are supposed to do and you wind up with 85%, comfortably in the A range. How do you feel?
I suppose there’s many possibilities, but I see two in particular. First, the positive reaction. Most people would be thrilled with an A. That’s honour roll material. You could get a 20 on the next test and still have a passing grade. Heck, it’s almost impossible to fail now, assuming you at least pretend to try. That 85 likely put you in the top percentile. You are one of the top performers. An 85 is a great mark.
The other possible reaction: “85? Dang, where did the other 15% go?”
I have very high personal standards, higher than most people. I refuse to accept mediocrity, and to me, 85 is solidly mediocre. An 85 is a fancy way of saying I got six out of every seven questions right. That’s fine, but it’s far from exceptional. It’s a lot of wrong answers. Why should I celebrate being wrong that often?
Around this point, someone will say something like it doesn’t matter if you graduate at the top of the class or the bottom, because either way they call you doctor. This is true, but that makes me more uncomfortable around doctors than anything. Let’s change it to musicians. Do you know what you call a musician that gets 85% of the notes right? Terrible. A musician that hits 95% of his notes isn’t much better.
A standard song of 120 beats per minute and three minutes long would have nearly 20 mistakes in it, assuming one note per beat. If you listened to 20 wrong notes, you’d never listen to that band again. Ever. Being an adequate musician starts at 99% accuracy, and I’m tempted to just say a perfect 100%. The measure of a good musician isn’t how many notes he gets right, it’s what he does with those notes, how he expresses them, how he creates mood, how he accents the right beats and downplays others. Accuracy alone is barely worth anything. That should be a given.
Suppose you were learning how to play an instrument, or maybe you already know how. How many mistakes would you afford yourself? True, you are not a professional, so you don’t need the same incredibly high standards. That said, if you wanted to play your favourite song, how many mistakes would you allow yourself? Twenty? I might allow myself two or three flubs, but anything more would be unacceptable. I want my favourite song to sound good, after all.
That’s really the heart of the matter. If I’m going to do something, I want it to sound good, look good, feel good, be good. Why would I do otherwise? Anything other than excellence is unacceptable. Now, for sure, there is a difference between something I want to do and schoolwork. This is true for most people. We generally like our hobbies more than we like calculus, and we put different amounts of effort into each. I have no problem with this, yet, at the same time, I do.
Go big or go home. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. These two thoughts have dominated my thinking on this subject. If you’re going to do something, you need to do it. Simple as that. Anything else is a waste of time. If you’re just going to half-ass something, why bother?
Grade 9 science class perfectly shows my thinking on this. At the time, I didn’t care about school. At all. I spent all my time practicing karate. I did no homework, and my marks reflected this. However, I did excellent on tests and essays. Essays were easy and I had a good enough memory to pass tests without any studying. I thus kept my marks acceptable, at least through Grade 10.
Anyway, my Grade 9 science teacher had a bad habit of assigning stupid projects. Things like making a 3d model of a cell or creating informative posters filled with images. These things are dumb. Why do I need to make a poster about tornadoes? Why can’t I just write an essay? Do you know how often I needed to make a poster outside of school? Never. How about something to do with writing? Just about daily. One is thus useful, the other useless.
The 3d model of a cell was even worse. Why are you grading my ability to make a sculpture? I’m terrible at this stuff. I’m not an artist, let alone a 3d one. I thus didn’t do it. My teacher actually demanded that I hand something in, so I took out one of our handouts of the cell, labelled it and then folded the four sides. There, it was no longer flat, so it was 3d.
I got roughly a 60 on that, and the same was true for all the other stupid assignments. My overall mark, though, was in the mid 70s, and that was because I did very well on the tests and essays. You know, the actual school work. My teacher actually confronted me about that. “Why aren’t you on the honour roll? Why do you have such bad marks on these assignments?”
The answer was simple. I didn’t care. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well … but these assignments weren’t worth doing. Why would I waste my time doing something so meaningless? I didn’t care about my marks, I didn’t really care about the content, so why bother? I could use that time instead to practice karate, something I decidedly did care about.
Indeed, I spent a ridiculous amount of time at karate, often 2-3 hours a night for 4-5 nights a week, plus extra time practicing at home. You couldn’t pay me to stop. If my instructor asked me to do something, I did it, no questions asked. If I made a mistake, it burned me to the core. If I got the martial equivalent of an 85 on my kata, I rightly condemned myself for missing that 15%, and I then went about trying to fix that.
This led to a rather humorous situation. My school marks continued their slow decline, peaking at the beginning of Grade 11, where I was mostly in the 60s. A teacher phoned my mom who then phoned my Sensei, and he told me, point blank, if my marks did not improve I would not continue with karate.
I then finished Grade 12 with a 94 average. The difference was night and day. I suddenly cared, and in a big way. Previously ‘stupid’ school assignments now became my focus. I took time off of karate during exam season. I had to if I wanted good marks. All these little things, things I did not enjoy, were suddenly worth doing, and that meant they were worth doing well.
There’s thus this strange situation within me. I have very high standards … except when I don’t. If I value something, then I will do everything in my power to make it as good as possible… and if I don’t value something, then I can’t be bothered. I doubt this is strange by itself, but I think I take it to the extreme a little more than most.
Bottom line, it’s my life, and I want to do well in the things I love. If that requires me to sacrifice the quality of things I don’t love, then so be it.